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SUSTAINABLE CHICAGO Spring 2014
industrial operation of its own, which has allowed
who knows what chemicals to leach into the soil.
Even if it hadn’t, the proximity to other potential
toxic sources is enough to scare off many prospec-
tive buyers.
That perception can sometimes be based merely
on the fact that nobody has done anything with the
site, therefore something must be wrong with it. But
the true status of a property can’t be known without
a little digging—whether in soil or through paper-
work.
The two-year project will see an army of local
volunteers walk their neighborhood with a more dis-
cerning eye than they may be accustomed to.
These boarded up buildings can just become part
of the scenery and you forget what the history of
them was or how long they’ve been there,” said
Renas.
The project aims to educate the community’s
youth about environmental justice, as well as to har-
ness their idealism and energy. According to Kim
Wasserman, the Senior Advisor to LVEJO and its for-
mer Executive Director, the foundation of environ-
mental justice is residents having intimate
knowledge of their immediate surroundings. “What
better way to figure that out than walking block by
block?” she said. “They start looking at everything
that is in their backyard and then we start looking
at the assets that go along with that.” From there, it
is a matter of deciding what the neighborhood’s re-
sources are and what its needs are, and then deter-
mining how to use the former to fulfill the latter.
During their survey, they will tabulate a multi-
tude of characteristics for each site: size, location,
how it’s zoned, the properties surrounding it, status
of any structures and much more. “Then we will
look at EPA databases to see if there were any re-
leases reported on the site,” said Wasserman. “We’ll
look at property tax records and any records from
the city of Chicago that would suggest ownership of
these sites.”
Digging Deep
Tracking down the owners may require a bit of
detective work. During her initial windshield survey
of Little Village, Renas came across a potential
brownfield, comprising an entire city block. It was
fenced in and empty but for a few trees, some utility
poles and, quizzically, a speedboat.
The untended nature of the trees indicated that
the lot had been inactive for some time and track-
ing down the property owner might be more diffi-
cult. Surveyors may talk with the site’s neighbors,
and record their remembrances of how it had been
used in the past. Because of the power lines, in-
formation about the property could be gleaned
from ComEd.
And then there’s the boat. Ideally it needn’t
come to this, but tracking down the owner of the
boat based on its registration number may lead to
the lienholder of the fenced-in site. “I would have to
go back in the records to find out what that boat is
about,” said Renas. “Why would they think they can
put it here? Do they own the property?”
Once the mapping project is complete, Delta and
LVEJO will cull their list of brownfields down to a
list of about 20 or 25 high-priority sites. These they
will present at community meetings to get an un-
derstanding of which ones the residents view as sig-
nificant. They will also conduct research in order to
discover any work that others have already done
with the brownfields that they have identified.
Through this community input and research, LVEJO
and Delta can reduce their list to around ten. “That’s
when the real work begins,” said Wasserman.
Environmental site assessments will show the
level of toxicity on each site. Ideally, the ten best lo-
cations merely have an appearance of contamina-
tion and, armed with the knowledge of their benign
nature, developers can be courted to help build up
the properties. This scenario is unlikely, however,
given the industrial history in Little Village. At least
some, if not most, of the preferred properties will
have some contamination. Then the job is to figure
out to what degree the site needs to be cleaned up
and who will pay for it.
The two organizations may approach the city for
financial help if a prospective developer is attached
to a site. The recently-formed Cook County Land
Bank Authority is another tool that can expedite the
transfer of a property title into the hands of a devel-
oper. They may also take legal action against the
property owner to remediate the site.
This
[
inspector
]
comes
out,gets out of her car,
and legitimately throws
up from the smell of
garbage.”